When it comes to fixing the mess in Iraq, there's an idea gaining currency in Washington. It's not new, but it is increasingly being discussed behind the scenes.
It's not something the Bush administration wants to talk about in public. At least, not yet. But I've picked up hints in off-the-record conversations with well-connected officials.
It's a plan that would allow for a significant reduction in troop levels over the next year. It's a plan that could encourage more Iraqis to fight extremists.
What is it? Call it states' rights — in the model of our American Founding Fathers. And proponents say it may well be the best option to keep Iraq together.
Back in 2003, the American occupation administrators who set up shop in the Green Zone wanted to fashion a new nation that would have a strong central government. They thought that handing authority to local leaders would result in the breakup of Iraq.
But now, four-and-a-half years later, violence has hardened ethnic and sectarian identities. Genuine nationalism hasn't emerged. That's why local sectarian militias are more powerful than the army. The militiamen are committed to fight for their religious brethren. Soldiers in Iraq's army aren't sure what they're fighting for.
Proponents of states' rights say accepting the reality of Iraq's sectarian differences presents the best hope of saving Iraq.
The goal, they say, isn't to chop Iraq into three separate countries. Instead, it is to provide genuine authority and resources to Iraq's provinces. Think of how the Republican Party in the United States has traditionally viewed the issue of states' rights, and apply it to Iraq. Allow each province to have its own National Guard. To spend its share of the national budget. To effectively govern itself. Certain functions, like the printing of money, would still remain in the hands of the national government. But most day-to-day responsibilities would be given to local leaders.
Consider the success we've had in combating al Qaida in Anbar province. Instead of asking Iraq's ragtag army to take on the terrorists, we're working with local Sunni tribesmen. They're fighting with loyalty and dedication. That's because they're fighting for their fellow Sunni leaders, not the Shiite-dominated government back in Baghdad.
Sure, this strategy has no shortage of challenges. There would have to be a fair way to distribute Iraq's oil revenue, for instance. Local officials would have to learn how to run their own budgets.
Iraq's constitution already enshrines federalism. But proponents say the United States needs to do more to encourage the Iraqis to embrace it.
People have criticized the effort to impose American-style democracy on Iraq. But supporters of states' rights say it is one element of our democracy that we really do need to share with the Iraqis.
Why doesn't the Bush administration want to talk about this idea? Administration officials don't want to anger Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other national leaders in Iraq. Many Iraqis equate federalism with partition — even though it isn't.
Touting states' rights would also be tantamount to admitting that the White House's political goals in Iraq have fundamentally shifted.
But handing more authority to local leaders may be the only option to preserve a country called Iraq.
Just don't expect government officials to say so anytime soon.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran is the author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone and a former Baghdad bureau chief at the Washington Post.